Monday, July 30, 2018

When we are angry with God, he isn’t offended.

I hear this confessed as a sin with such regularity that it prompted me to reflect on this in my weekly blog.  "Father, I am angry with God."  It seems to plague many sincere hearts who come regularly to the sacrament of reconciliation and as much as possible, when time allows, I try to unravel what appears to be a knot that is featured in the lives of many of the faithful.  To be sure, there are many Catholics who have not been sufficiently formed well, for various reasons, and their images of God in their mind are often stuck in their pre-confirmation, early teenage years, and because they hardly made much efforts in learning more about their faith after their confirmation, many have grown up into adulthood and at ages of 50 or 70 years old, carry with them a very stilted notion of God, and one which isn’t very helpful to having a real and loving relationship with in the spiritual life.

That God is imaged as a divine control freak who gets all upset and wound up and becomes stuck in an emotional snit of sorts isn’t very helpful when words from Scripture, Apostolic Exhortations and preaching at Mass tells us that God is merciful and slow to anger.  The fact is that this image of God may have been useful in bringing across the fact that we need to be respectful of God and mind our p’s and q’s in our moral behavior when we were in our pre-teen years.  And I use the phrase ‘may have been’ very cautiously, because oftentimes, what we hear as impressionable children later becomes impregnated into our developing psyches with a resistance towards change and getting over, not unlike the way an earworm gets into one’s head and nothing seems to get it out without being drowned out by an earworm that is more annoying that the first earworm.

I have come to the conclusion that as a priest, I will probably have to spend the rest of my priestly life having these conversations with penitents who hardly realize that it is their stilted notions of a small and petty God that has caused them much strife in their spiritual journey toward maturity and freedom.  I have always harboured the hope that I could do this en masse, where I could with one good teaching session, or one catechetical event, or one well-written blog or essay, somehow change bad theology and somehow have the people of God suddenly see light when they had been in darkness all along. I have realized that this is indeed too facile a belief.  I have to remind myself about the law of gradualness, something that is taught in moral theology, which is a notion that people improve in their relationship with God and grow in virtue gradually, and hardly ever make a great leap of improvement overnight.

I need to remind myself that it takes great humility (and great love) to even want to change our often stubborn ways of thinking.  Pride may invade our hearts in one fell swoop and take up some form of permanent residence there, but humility is always only given a small space in that same place, and most often as an invited guest and hardly given all the rooms inside the same heart.  In that same way, a toxic notion of God can only be changed if one wants to give space for a healthier understanding of God.  

By the same token, I look upon with great pity and empathy in my heart whenever I encounter penitents who struggle with habitual sins and in their prayer, are asking God to control their desires and habits.  Hardly do they realize that what they want is a God who is massive control freak who doesn’t want or value the freedom of his creation.  It is precisely because God isn’t interested at all in controlling us that he gives us the freedom to curtail our habits on our own, out of love for him.  Any actions done by us because we are not free to do otherwise diminishes the purity of our love for God.  A gossiper who doesn’t bother to control his or her tongue but is only asking God to clip his or her speech has failed to see how much value it is when one makes all the effort one can to curtail the things one says, and the characters whom he assassinates with his loose tongue.  

Scripture tells us, and tells us correctly, that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.  Unfortunately, Scripture doesn’t have footnotes to define what this fear of God looks like in life.  It doesn’t give an indication that this fear can be one that is healthy and how it can also end up being unhealthy. And unhealthy fear is manifested when one thinks of God as a fierce ogre who is lurking around the corner, who overhears our every conversation and spies on us waiting to catch us committing sins. That is a fear that is far from a healthy one. 

A healthy fear is one that is based on giving such great deference to God and his love, that one fears breaking or injuring this love and wants to do all one can to maintain the integrity of this love.  This is the fear a husband has of his wife, and the wife for her husband. Not a servile love, but one that fully understands just how beautiful and precious the love is that one has been given, and one fears bringing any harm to this love through neglect, ingratitude or carelessness.  

A fundamentalist once asked psychiatrist Fritz Perls if he has been saved (as many fundamentalists are wont to do), and he had a classic answer:  Saved?  I’m still trying to figure out how to be spent!”  Perls understood rightly that when one fully appreciates the depth of the meaning to be saved (which is the same as appreciating being loved), one ought to be fully aware of the need to become just as loving to everyone, everywhere and every time.  This is the joyful energy that needs to be generated outward, and to be generative of one’s own ability to love.

Monday, July 23, 2018

With a grateful heart

As a blog writer who tries to put something with some freshness and originality each week on this page, I have always tried to be conscious of not putting myself or my ego in the forefront.  My life, as St Paul so courageously said, is all about Christ, and as a priest, it is my desire that more and more people start to see this as their life goal too.  

But I also do know that on certain occasions, and for a good purpose, it may warrant me to write something that affects me personally.  This week is one such occasion.

On Wednesday, 25 July 2018, which is two days away from today, I will celebrate something significant in my journey with cancer.  It will make exactly 5 years since I received that life-saving stem-cell transplant from an anonymous donor who so generously reached out and saved the life of a fellow human being.  Of course, many of you would know by now that one year after the transplant, the rules that govern the transplant permit that donors can find out about the identity of their recipients, and mine did just that – one year to the date of his donation, and the world now knows that Peter Mui of Chicago is my ‘earthly’ savior.

That 5 year mark for any cancer patient is really quite a big deal.  It means that one is considered to be medically in remission, and that one has crossed marker that makes one now a cancer survivor.  

So, this blog goes out to the many (and I am well aware that there are much more of you than I know of personally) who have journeyed with me these 5 years and given me the support of prayer, love, joy and friendship.  

Ever since my cancer journey began, I saw it as a gift from God – a golden opportunity and a reason for me to speak passionately about the place and importance that suffering has in our lives.  As a priest, I constantly come across so many (believers and non) who are angry, confused and have all sorts of problems whenever suffering enters into their lives in its many forms.  The great mystery of the Christian faith is that it is through suffering that the world was saved, and somehow, it was love within this suffering that effectuated the world’s salvation.  It is only from this lens can we try to see something good in suffering.  Otherwise, suffering will only have an evil end. The triumph of Calvary where the tomb was empty is our vindication in taking suffering positively.

I have come to not only see but also experience up close that our attitude towards suffering makes such a great difference.  In the past, I was inclined like so many, to view life this way – that I will only truly enjoy life and be happy when all my work is done, when my health is perfect, when I am physically fit, when all tensions within my circles of family and friends are in peaceful equilibrium, and there is a tranquility in the pace of life.  Then, I can say that I am truly enjoying life.  

My cancer journey and my cancer gift from God refined that idea.  It was an infantile idea and dare I admit, one that would never put anybody in any state of sustained joy and happiness.  That is because there will always be tensions in life, and because we live in a world that is prone to sin, stress comes in various forms.  I have grown to see that the so-called interruptions or distractions in life are the ‘stuff’ that makes life what it is.  How we face these challenges, the attitudes that we broach them with, whether we resent them and become bitter people, or whether we embrace them with patience, forbearance and fortitude, with an eye cast towards heaven, determines how close or how far we are from being images of Christ to the world.  

I have always been aware during my bouts of chemotherapy, the transplant, and the ensuing encounters with graft-versus-host disease that I was actually in a very grace-filled and rich time of my life.  In fact, I do look with much fondness back at those days, and with hindsight, see God’s amazing hand even in the tensions, nausea, pains, throbbing headaches and the hundreds of needles that found their way either into my veins or muscle-fibers.  

I thank God for my cancer and my faith, my bishop and brother priests who prayed for me and ministered to me, my various doctors, nurses and caregivers for my treatments, my fellow Christians and friends from the world over for their prayers and love, my family for their patience and constancy and undying love, my parishioners who have been journeying with me, BMDP (Bone Marrow Donor Programme) and Be The Match, Chicago, and of course, Mr Peter Mui from Chicago, who five years ago on this day, bothered to interrupt his own life to help me to face my own interruption in life when it was graced with leukemia.  

Monday, July 16, 2018

Our need to see our works finished may be our stumbling block towards humility.

I know that what I am about to write will be somewhat controversial.  But I also do have a sense that there is a great truth in it. Understood wrongly, it may even think that I am somehow inimical towards finishing one’s work or completing one’s tasks in life.  I am not. There is a whole lot of virtue in making sure that one’s work and efforts in life get completed as far as possible, applying in all tasks that we set out to do the best that we can.  No successful project as been accomplished with efforts that are half-baked and sloppy.  This is a fact.

But there is also another aspect of the truth that there is also a virtue in accepting the fact that we sometimes do not see the end, result or success of our efforts and endeavours, and that all that matters is that we have done our small part in contributing to the final product, and be contented that we did not taste the fruits of our labours in our lifetime.  Nurturing this helps tremendously in developing in our lives the virtue of humility.

This reality hits me whenever I visit medieval Cathedrals in Europe.  Walking through the ancient portals into their magnificent interiors, often filled with brilliant and breathtaking stained glass windows depicting scenes from both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, most eyes are looking at things above.  But I am also drawn to look at the things that are not all that breathtaking, like the flooring or the lower portions of columns and arches.  These Cathedrals were not built in a few years. In fact, many of the great ones like Chartres and Reims took more than 60 years to be completed.  The Notre Dame in Paris was only completed 200 years after its groundbreaking, and in Barcelona, Spain, the regal Familia Sagrada’s imposing structure hasn’t even been completed since construction began in 1882, and it is scheduled to be finished only in 2026, making it an estimated 144 year-long project.  The stone cutters and those workmen and labourers who laid the floorings and bottoms of those walls and pillars most probably didn’t see the end of the work that they began.  Yet, we see the fruit of their labours in their glory now.  In fact, the architect of Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi himself died in 1926 and is buried within the Sagrada Familia itself.

There is a lot of humility that is unseen in these Cathedrals.  There is also a lot of the finished beauty, majesty and magnificence of the completed work that was not seen by those involved in the construction of those buildings themselves.  This truth was very likely in the minds of those many stone cutters, brick layers, artisans and architects as they undertook these long term projects. What drove them to just be contented with their small tasks must have been the knowledge (and faith) that all was required of them was to put in their best in the little tasks that lay before them.

We who live in an age of the ‘instant’ have developed a resistance to this mind that fosters humility of heart.  There is much to be lauded for the advancement of technology and science which has given rise to the speed at which projects that are massive are completed. 

But there is a downside to speed, which isn’t easily noticed.  It can become an obsession and an addiction and we begin to think that it is our right to see the fruits of all our labours in our lifetime. 

The greats of the Old Testament - Moses, Abraham, all of the Prophets - all of them experienced this 'incompletion' in their lives.  Moses was told that he would lead the Hebrew people to the Promised Land, but he himself didn't get to step into it.  But he did lead them there.  Abraham was promised that his descendants would number as many as the stars, yet he died with only one child.  Notice that God didn't promise him that he would see his descendants with his own eyes.  All the Prophets spoke about the Messiah in various ways, yet not one except John the Baptist saw him, but even then, didn't see how Jesus would realise the prophecies of old, as he died before Jesus fulfilled the Father's will.

I have met and ministered to so many people who have either struggled with or maybe even lost their faith in God's love and presence and guidance because in their lives they have not seen God's promises fulfilled.  Sick loved ones didn't get healed and succumbed to their illness and died.  Marriages have failed apart despite attempts at bridging the chasm that became bigger between the spouses.  Businesses have tanked and friends experienced betrayal.  Hearts have been broken and the wounds have been deep and raw.  These are just some of the ways in which people have believed that God had reneged on his covenant of love.

We need to have what is called a meta-narrative when we talk about God's being with us.  His being with us requires us to sometimes experience these Calvary moments, and to face them with faith requires of us to do at least two things - one, to always see Christ's passion as the model of how to face our struggles with pain, suffering and even disappointment, and two, to be humble and somehow be able to say with deep faith that I don't need to understand nor see the fruit of my faith in its completed glory with every happiness defined on my terms.  Our faith life is ultimately a call to enter into mystery.  Even when I die with my hopes and dreams unfinished, as long as I have put great love and effort in all that I have done, it is still ok.  My life is not the Cathedral.  It was just a small part of the cornice of God's Cathedral.

David Brooks wrote in his book ‘The Road to Character’ about two kinds of virtues that we develop in life – the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues.  The resume virtues are those that one lists in one’s resume and these are attainable very often with due diligence, hard work and much effort.  These we bring to the marketplace.  The eulogy virtues are the ones that are others talk about or mention during our eulogies when we die.  They don’t normally have certificates or citations that show that we have them. They are seen writ large in the lives we lead – kindness, humility, compassion, honesty and longsuffering are but a few examples.  They are not projects to be accomplished, but ways in which we live.

These are the cathedrals that we leave behind unfinished when we die.  Many a time, when I speak to people about the life of holiness and sanctification, the idea I want to stress is that these are not short term projects that we see the completion of in our lifetime.  It’s always a work-in-process.  We often say that we are ‘practicing Catholics’ and there is a truth in that.  No one is a perfected Catholic.  We are all in some ways honing our skills and trying to attain some degree of mastery in the spiritual life, never becoming masters ourselves.  

I have mentioned in quite a few blogs in the past Karl Rahner’s quote that “In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable, all symphonies in life remain unfinished”.  Our accepting and understanding this, I believe, is one of the keys to developing a truly humble spirit and a tender heart.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Learning to admire ought to be the proper Christian response to envy and jealousy.

Envy and jealousy plagues a large majority of people, and I can say this with some certainty because it is one of the most confessed sins in the sacrament of Reconciliation.  It does seem that the human heart (and mind) is somehow wired to competition (which may not be all that bad a thing) and to envy and jealousy at the success of others (which is one of the cardinal sins).  

Whilst the sword of competitiveness pushes one to excel in a given field, it does have a proverbial double-edge which reveals itself in the feelings of envy, jealousy and even covetousness.  Envy is really a pointless and stupid sin, because it is the only sin where there is no outright benefit to anyone when it is committed.  Every other sin has at least some degree of perceived good to cause one to give in to it.  Even a heinous sin like murder has some twisted benefit to the one who perpetrates the killing because of the belief that one’s life will be a bit better with the death of the victim.  Envy benefits no one – neither the one who is envious nor the one who is envied.  It truly is a pointless and stupid sin. Yet, so many cave in to it so easily. Sometimes, being overtly critical of others is a sign of envy, and we cover it up so cleverly by telling ourselves that it is the sophisticated and the enlightened, and those who are refined that can critique and comment. Yet we know that deep inside, what sets this off is envy. 

So what should be the proper Christian response to this apparent dilemma?  What should we be cultivating in order to have a healthy and less sinful approach to this streak in us that appears to foil our quest for holiness and sanctification?  Is there a solution that helps us build up rather than to tear down? 

An article in the New York Times last Monday attempted to put a new spin on this very subject.  The author based his recommendation on a book entitled “The Hidden Brain” by Shankar Vedantam, who says that these feelings are very real in the human person. Shankar recommends that one who is prone to jealousy when a friend has achieved some success that one could have, but didn’t, ought to find a complementary aspect of their achievement which discourages an implicit comparison.  In other words, look for the difference in the way your competition did it as compared to yours, and when you spot that difference, frame the success within that difference and begin to celebrate your friend’s achievement.  His achievement is different and his goal was different from yours, and this, he proffers, tames the prideful side of you and it can even increase your own self-evaluation, because you will be wanting different things.

Shankar’s observation and conclusion isn’t all that far from the wisdom that spiritual greats like Ronald Rolheiser tries to impart when he wrote something about this human dilemma of envy and jealousy sometime back, but with a difference of course. Shankar is a science reporter with a station called National Public Radio in the USA; Rolheiser is a Roman Catholic priest and theologian who is a syndicated writer of a column who writes from a spiritual view of life.

Rolheiser’s key to being liberated from the sin of envy and jealousy of another’s success is to learn how to admire.  I tend to agree with Rolheiser that the human person in the 21stcentury has somehow lost the art of admiring.  Perhaps I would go one step further to say that the 21stcentury human being is unable to admire because he or she just hasn’t been taught to do that well.  The modern mind so bent on success and personal glory has not given much space to train that part of us that admires, appreciates and acclaims things like beauty, goodness and talent outside of oneself.  

I was in Paris late last year and managed to wander along the corridors of the cavernous Louvre Museum in the city of lights.  I learnt that it’s not just the breathtaking masterpieces that one observes in that magnificent setting.  One can also people-watch, something that I did while I was milling the passages of the museum.  Pressing round me were the thousands of tourists who just like me, were there gawking at the beauty of the works of Degas, Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Matisse and Monet.  I even overheard someone saying in louder-than whispered tones “I’m sure I can afford to buy this one and put it over our fire-place in our mansion back home”. “Surely they were jesting”, I thought to myself, but that thought was something I brought back home as I mused on the human heart, and the need to possess.

I recall asking myself at that point whether that was the measure of the person’s status or achievement in life – to be able to buy up anything one fancies – even a priceless artwork.  If it is so, it may be the result of not having nurtured the ability to admire without needing to possess.   

If we have only been seeing life as a competition where we must be the top dog and trump over all our opponents, their success in whatever form will always be seen as a failure or loss on our part, and we must, by hook or by crook, have what they have.  It will signal that we have structured pretty much everything achievement and standing out. 

Living out our Christian faith well requires of us to not compare ourselves with others, and feel threatened when we see others enjoying various forms of success and earthly glory.  The key to do this is to admire without coveting, and to praise without regretting that you are not the one receiving it.  In truth, we will never be truly happy in life if we cannot honestly admire.  

God, I believe, is never in a snit, frowning and brooding as he looks at the world. Sure, it does concern him that the world has turned its back on him and his call to sanctification, but because he is love, he is also full of admiration.  Scripture tells us that he approved what he created – he saw it, and it was good.  When we learn to admire, we learn to be like God in that regard.  And that will be a very good way to deal with envy – a most stupid and pointless sin.

Post Script:
The diocesan priests of Singapore will be on retreat this week, and as such, I will take a break from my weekly reflection.  Please pray for us that we will respond to God's grace in the retreat and return next week to our ministries refreshed, energised and recharged.  The next blog entry should be on 16 July 2018.